Familiar foes compete for bragging rights in the Land of Enchantment on Saturday, as the 17th-ranked New Mexico Lobos entertain the New Mexico State Aggies in non-conference play in The Pit.
Entering the latest installment of the Rio Grande Rivalry, head coach Steve Alford pushed his Lobos to their 10th win in as many chances to open the campaign last week, taking down the Crusaders of Valparaiso at home in a 65-52 final. One of only a handful of Division I programs with 10 wins heading into the weekend, UNM is one of three squads from the Mountain West Conference that is nationally ranked (San Diego State and UNLV).
As for the Aggies, they started off the campaign with just one win in four tries, but as of late they've managed to balance the scales. The team has had 11 days to prepare for this contest since defeating South Alabama on the road, 58-52. The victory was the second in a row and the fourth in five tries for a team that is now one game over .500 (5-4) for head coach Marvin Menzies.
The Lobos lead the all-time series between the two programs by a count of 113-95, although last season the squads split a pair of matchups, each winning on the road. The contest played in The Pit went to the Aggies by a 62-53 score in the middle of November. The teams will follow up this meeting with a date in Las Cruces four days from now.
The Aggies led South Alabama by as many as 17 points with just over eight minutes to play in their first half of their meeting back on Dec. 4, but the visitors nearly let one get away as they survived with a six-point win. Daniel Mullings and Sim Bhullar accounted for 13 and 12 points, respectively, for the Aggies, while Bandja Sy put together a double-double for NMSU with 11 points and a game-high 14 rebounds for a team that survived 17 turnovers, 1-of-8 shooting behind the three-point line and just 9-of-18 accuracy at the charity stripe. Shooting at the foul line (.662) and out on the perimeter (.291) has been questionable for the Aggies, although as the leading scorer Mullings (13.9 ppg) has been holding his own in those two areas with 57.1 percent on the outside and 74.4 percent at the stripe. Luckily for the Aggies, their defense has been able to carry them by allowing just 37.9 percent shooting from the floor and 27.5 percent beyond the arc, leading to a mere 59.6 ppg.
New Mexico got off to a bit of a shaky start against the Crusaders the last time out, making only eight field goals in the first half, including 2-of-8 beyond the arc, but once again the team's numerous trips to the free-throw line saved them and kept their undefeated record intact. Chad Adams, Alex Kirk and Demetrius Walker all scored 12 points for the hosts as they outscored Valpo at the charity stripe, 20-8. Offsetting the team's mere 64.5 percent accuracy at the line was the fact that they held the Crusaders to just a single offensive board. Except for the meeting with USC a few weeks back, the Lobos have made at least 21 trips to the charity stripe in every outing this season, which has provided the squad with close to 22 ppg, compared to 10.3 ppg for the competition. Because the program has forced the issue in order to create a steady march to the free-throw line, the fact that UNM has allowed more made field goals (226) than itself (222) hasn't been a problem. Kirk, who is tied with Snell for the second-best scoring average (11.7 ppg), has been a pleasant surprise with his 8.2 rpg.